By James Owen
How good were the Olympics! The fact that competition has gone ahead given the predicament that the world is in is an achievement in itself. I felt certain before the opening ceremony that the games would turn into a COVID catastrophe and dissolve into a super-spreading saga. But the sanguine Japanese organising committee and authorities enabled the go-ahead of the Games that gave us all something to celebrate – especially during the unprecedented and uncertain global times.
So, to triathlon. When you’re too good at one sport on its own, do three of them one after the other. These super athletes produced a series of fantastic races exhibiting their physical and technical prowess in swim/bike/run disciplines. Aside from the ludicrous speeds at which competitors make their way around the course, I noticed a few interesting aspects during this race that I had not noticed before.
No one was wearing one. Initially I wondered if this was a rule of Olympic triathlon in which GPS devices were not allowed. During my research I did find reference to a rule which forbids communication devices of any kind – smart watches being one. I’m not certain that this rule applied to the Olympics, but it may have been.
Even if this rule was in force, it still raises some interesting points about data. Let’s assume that these athletes will almost certainly all be using power meters on their bikes, so we’re talking specifically about running.
Many triathletes use data to plan their race, ensure effective pacing, or measure their intensity against known values. But the Olympic athletes didn’t have access to this. This signals just how in tune the top competitors are with their bodies.
Yes, the duration of the race means that energy requirements and management are different from a long-distance triathlon. But the fact is that these athletes are changing their intensity and pace in response to what’s going on around them. It’s pure racing as opposed to running on numbers or aiming for splits. If someone makes a move, you decide whether to go with them; how are you tracking on the day? How well do I know my body? How is my effort right now?
For the age grouper I think the lesson is that data can supplement your training, but don’t become a slave to it. In addition, I believe there is a possibility for data to drive a certain performance output; “my watch says I’m running too fast, I’m gonna blow up!”. Who’s to say that the adrenaline of race day, favourable conditions, other competitors, correct rest, and good training can’t produce some out-of-the-box results on race day? Sure, don’t sprint the first 50m of the run, but use data as a guide, not as a script. Olympic triathletes don’t, so we don’t always need to, either.
There was lots of eating going on! During the run I counted several athletes taking on multiple gels on both the bike and the run. During my most memorable Olympic distance races I remember having at most 2 gels on the bike, and hardly anything on the run. Truthfully, I was probably maxing out and taking anything apart from water would result in some upchucking a few moments later.
But the super athletes have trained to take on plenty of nutrition, even at the highest of intensities. Riding 40km in 55 minutes and running a sub- 30-minute 10km is really, really high intensity. Nutrition is so important to top athletes that, despite the duration and pace, taking in sugars and electrolytes must prolong this high-level output, and may even allow for surges and sprint finishes towards the end.
The lesson here is that nutrition is vital, even at the highest ends of aerobic activity. Train with what you use on race day and test your strategy at race pace. The Olympians are doing it; there must be a reason for it.
The Games are done and dusted for another few years. The lessons from the top athletes can apply to us all: use data as a tool to aid in your training and racing, and keep getting the fuel in even when you’re giving it everything. Thanks Olympics, you were great!
James Owen is an MX Endurance Race Team ambassador.